The Fun Meter

This story never made it on the wire..

A little danger, a little humor

By Todd Pitman

RAMADI, Iraq _ When bullets start flying and rockets start exploding, when the going gets tough in one of Iraq's toughest cities, the tough turn up the Fun Meter _ a homemade cardboard dial taped onto a military command center wall.

"It's sarcasm," says Marine 2nd Lt. Brian Wilson of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, explaining what the meter's paper blue arrow signifies as it's rotated manually from zero to red-zone 90.

"It's low when it's really boring," the 24-year-old platoon commander from Columbia, South Carolina says. "But when everything goes bananas and mortars are falling on our head, going crazy, the Fun Meter goes all the way up."

Humor and a healthy dose of sarcasm are vital to keeping up morale among U.S. forces in Ramadi, an insurgent-wracked city 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad where the threat of death is a daily part of life.

Many have escaped roadside bomb attacks, dodged bullets whizzing over their heads, and taken part in hours-long gunfights. They've trudged through foot-deep sewage water on patrol, taken "showers" with baby wipes and used military-issued plastic bags as toilets because it was too dangerous to go outside.

"You have to laugh about it," said Marine Cpl. Graham Platner, 21, of Sullivan, Maine. "If you don't laugh about it, you'll probably go crazy."

Troops say their biggest morale boosters are sleep, hot chow and mail from home that brings gifts, letters and sometimes, delicacies like still-moist cookies and banana bread.

Most units receive letters from American kids they don't know, too _ elementary school children, girl scouts _ meant to offer simple words of encouragement.

One child's inadvertent word choice sparked a lot of laughs. It read, "thanks for dying for our country," said Lt. Col. Ronald Clark, commander of the 101st Airborne Division's 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment.

Some of the humor is dark, and no-doubt of the nervous kind.

"Let's hope we don't get blown up today," said one Marine, prompting a chorus of laughter as he and fellow Marines headed out a couple days after four troops were killed by an improvised explosive device, or IED.

Rolling out in another part of the city in a tracked armored personal carrier, Army 1st Sgt. Noel Foster asked: "Can we not hit an IED just one time?"
From up front came a response, and chuckles: "Last time we didn't hit one. That was our one time."

As Foster, a 36-year-old from Sedro Woolley, Washington, drove toward a crumbling hotel-turned-sandbagged observation post, he offered some soothing words to the troops riding along: "This is your captain speaking. This is a nonstop flight to OP Hotel. There is no in-flight movie and there will be no snack refreshments."

Hours later, the snickering men would be running for their lives as bullets smacked into walls around them during a gunfight.

Asked if he was worried about being attacked during a rotation at an observation post, Army Staff Sgt. Henry Crenshaw expressed concern about the amount of sandbags being brought in to strengthen the crumbling four-story building, already weakened by rockets and a truck bombing.

"I ain't worried about takin' fire," said Crenshaw, 33, of Halifax, Virginia. "I'm worried about overweight pigeons sucking up sewage water, landing on the roof and us surfing concrete to the ground."

The insurgents, "they just don't have the nighttime dedication the dedication that they used to," he said.

In a Ramadi suburb, Master Sgt. Tom Coffey, 38, of Underhill, Vermont told his Humvee driver to speed up. "You need to start finding your inner redneck. This is a four-wheel drive. Hit the gas!"

When dozens of insurgents launched a two-hour attack on the governor's compound, troops called in air strikes that turned surrounding battle-scarred buildings into balls of billowing gray smoke. "A little urban renewal," one Marine called it.

During that skirmish, Marines fired anti-tank rockets, mortars and machine-guns at swarms of gunmen in ski masks who got so close troops beat them back by throwing grenades down onto the street below, said Marine Sgt. Edward Somuk.

"It was good therapy, we released a lot of aggression," the 30-year-old native of New Milford, Connecticut joked afterward. "It was like a day at Six Flags" _ the American theme park. "We're so well protected, and we have so much firepower, it was fun for us."

The crude Fun Meter is affixed to a wall in the Marine's small headquarters in the compound of the governor, who typically works at his desk while troops on the roof fend off insurgent attacks.

The daily violence is tracked down to the minute, and when time permits, reflected on the Fun Meter, too.

"We'll be in the middle of a firefight, there's serious stuff going on, and I'll reach over there and turn it up," Wilson said. "It just calms it down for that one second. It's just something to keep it funny in there. That place is too serious already."

Copyright Todd Pitman 2006. All Rights Reserved.